‘Donnie Darko’ Alternate Ending Was So Horrific The Film Wouldn’t Have Kept Its NC-17 Rating

Donnie Darko is the very definition of a cult classic. It’s weird in an endearing way, and despite the film’s many quirks and idiosyncrasies, to this day it has maintained quite a passionate cult following. The movie has stood out due to its great performances from young actors before they became stars, but also due to its unique ending. The alternate ending of the film, however, was so horrific that it wouldn’t have even allowed the film to keep its NC-17 rating. 

Frank (character in rabbit suit) from 'Donnie Darko' in a bathroom
Frank from Donnie Darko | Jerritt Clark/Getty Images

What was the premise of ‘Donnie Darko?’

According to IMDb, Donnie Darko was a 2001 film starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The film’s description is simple but bizarre. A teenage boy with apparent mental issues almost gets into an accident but avoids it. A piece of a plane crashes into his bedroom, but he’s not there so he obviously doesn’t perish in the event. Following that experience, he’s seemingly followed by what appears to be a man dressed as a giant rabbit. The rabbit then persuades him to commit crimes. 

The film was subversive, quirky, and dark. It didn’t do very well at the box office but would later find a dedicated audience after its initial run in theaters. It made about $6.9 million worldwide on a budget of $6 million, making it essentially a flop. That didn’t dissuade enthusiastic fans from falling in love with it on DVD, however.

The film had some recognizable names in the cast, including Jena Malone as well as Gyllenhaal and his sister Maggie. Patrick Swayze had a role, while a pre-fame Seth Rogen also briefly appeared. The movie is also noted for its stark, uncompromising ending. 

What happened at the end of ‘Donnie Darko’

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The end of Donnie Darko is equal parts mystifying and confusing, and an explanation almost doesn’t do it justice. The film doesn’t really have a genre, as it deals with so many different kinds of elements – it has a bit of sci-fi, some time travel, some mystery, and more. At the film’s conclusion, Donnie ends up approaching a vortex signifying the end of the world. Donnie’s mom and sister are on a plane caught in a storm and it crashes. Donnie enters the vortex, goes back in time to when pieces of the plane crashed into his house. This time, he doesn’t exit, allowing the engine to crash into him and kill him. He resets the timeline and saves the lives of his family members. 

Confused? You’re not alone. Many people who saw the film didn’t quite understand the grim and complex ending, but the film wouldn’t feel right without it. It was the type of ending that left people talking about the film and considering its impact well after seeing it. That said, the film had an alternate ending that was much more disturbing than what made it into the final cut. 

The horrific alternate ending for ‘Donnie Darko’

While the ending of Donnie Darko has some dark implications, a deleted scene would have made the ending much less subtle and more gruesome. Filmmaker Richard Kelly initially captured a brief shot of Donnie, lying in his bedroom, still breathing and impaled by a piece of the plane. The shot emphasizes just how difficult Donnie’s sacrifice was, underlining the pain he went through to save everyone else. 

It’s also a much more horrific ending than the one the film ended up with. The scene is too graphic for the rest of the film. While Donnie Darko definitely dealt with some mature subject matter, it didn’t feature anything as explicit as that final shot. It’s sad enough that Donnie sacrifices himself in the end. The deleted scene of him, lying in bed and dying, went a step too far.